Home Concepts Managing Stress & Challenges Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Zebras and Lions in the Workplace: An Interview with Dr. Robert Sapolsky

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Interview conducted by Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D.

[Published in The International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2006, Issue 2, pp. 7-15]

 When it comes to understanding why people do what they do, we cannot ignore the biological reasons for behavior. Leaders need to take into consideration physiological responses both in the environments they create and the requests they make to individuals within the organization. This interview explores the effects of stress on productivity and learning. It includes what are optimal levels of stress, how to create a “benevolent environment” that encourages risk-taking and innovation, and how to deal with our mental wiring that promotes the resistance to change. As a result, coaches can help their clients “re-create” their organizations to be more successful and more humane.

Marcia Reynolds: Thank you so much for speaking with me and sharing your work with our audience of  organizational coaches. Today I would like to focus on a few of our concerns, including the effect of stress on productivity, your research in adult learning and how we can maximize learning at work, especially how we can best help people get through change and apparent chaos at work.

First, one of the things that most fascinates me is your research and writing on the effects of stress on learning and memory. Can you give us an overview of your findings?

Dr. Sapolsky: When you’re talking about what most people attribute to “memory,” such as explicit memory (declarative, such as facts and descriptions) and implicit memory (procedural such as reflexive, motor actions), you get this sort of inverse pattern. First, a little bit of stress does wonders for enhancing memory. A little bit of stress increases glucose and oxygen delivery to the brain, strengthens synaptic communication, and finally increases the occurrence of LTP (i.e. Long-Term Potentiation – the phenomenon that describes the synapses learning and is strengthening). Short term stressors that are not too severe make that sort of learning mechanisms work better. We remember those things that excite the brain. For under about two hours or so stress is therefore beneficial.

By the time its gone on for four hours, you’re pretty much back to base line. Once it goes beyond four hours, and for some people constantly for up to 70 years, everything goes in the opposite direction. The learning capacity gets worse; less glucose and oxygen are delivered to the brain. Neurons in the hippocampus can actually be damaged and shrivel up. You stop making new neurons in that part of the brain.

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